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Custer's Boots

Custer's boots

George Armstrong Custer wore these boots while riding with the Seventh Cavalry on the Great Plains.

Elizabeth Custer's final glimpse of her husband came as the Seventh Cavalry marched out of Fort Lincoln onto the Dakota plains in May 1876. The regimental band played "The Girl I Left Behind Me" as General George Armstrong Custer led his command toward Montana and death on the Little Bighorn River.

Ironically, Elizabeth Custer was one army wife who insisted on not being left behind. She claimed to be "the only officer's wife who always followed the regiment." Her stories of life on the Plains with her beloved "Autie" are as entertaining today as when they first appeared over a century ago.

Widowed at 34, Elizabeth Custer began writing to supplement her meager army pension. Kansas is the setting for two of her books, Following the Guidon (1890) and Tenting on the Plains (1893). Her legacy to the state also includes this pair of her husband's boots.

On the Western Frontier

The boots donated by Mrs. Custer "traversed a great deal of the Western frontier," she wrote in a letter preserved in the Kansas Historical Society's collections. Purchased from a Philadelphia bootmaker for $40 dollars, the boots endured campaigns that took the Custers "from near the Mexican border to the Viscinity [sic] of the Canadian frontier."

The Custers lived in Kansas from 1866 until 1871, while the Seventh Cavalry was headquartered at Fort Riley to protect settlers and railroad workers on the western Plains. The already tense atmosphere escalated as army troops engaged in violent campaigns against the Southern Cheyennes, Sioux, Comanches, and other tribes.

Small and slender with delicate features, Elizabeth Custer seemed physically unfit for a life in the field. Although in many ways Libbie (as she was known to her friends) was a traditional nineteenth-century wife, she found nontraditional camp life invigorating.

From the first days of their marriage during the Civil War, the Custers lived together in military encampments whenever possible. Separation, though often unavoidable, was agony. "It is infinitely worse to be left behind, a prey to all the horrors of imagining what may be happening to one we love," Libbie wrote years later.

Mrs. Custer joined her husband in the field whenever it was reasonably safe to do so. During her years in Kansas, she encountered prairie fires, an earthquake, mutiny by soldiers at Fort Riley, and a cholera epidemic. Yet, she wrote later, "there was never a suggestion of returning to a well-regulated climate."

George Armstrong CusterTenting was particularly dangerous during storms. Shortly after Libbie joined her husband on Big Creek near Old Fort Hays, a nighttime squall blew down their "rag house" and drenched her possessions. Mrs. Custer borrowed her husband's dry underclothes to wear beneath a wet dress and donned a pair of cavalry boots. "The tent might go down nightly for all I cared then," she wrote in Tenting on the Plains. "Every thought of separation departed, and I gave myself up to the happiest hours, clamping about the tent in those old troop boots, indifferent whether my shoes ever dried." Her fondness for the boots she later donated to the museum may date from this event.

Elizabeth Custer was not the only female camp follower with the Seventh Cavalry, but she claimed to be the most faithful. Other officers' wives occasionally joined their husbands in camp, and young ladies visited the Custers at Libbie's invitation. The presence of comely single women made the Custers' tent the center of camp social life. Billiards, croquet, target shooting, and even buffalo hunting were enjoyed by men and women alike. "This wild jolly free life is perfectly fascinating," Libbie wrote a friend in 1869. "We dress as we like and live with no approach to style."

The Custers left Kansas when the Seventh Cavalry was reassigned in 1871. Stationed in Kentucky for a short time, they pined for the West. "A true cavalryman feels that a life in the saddle on the free open plain is his legitimate existence," Libbie observed. Their wish to return to the Plains was granted in early 1873 when they received orders to report to Fort Lincoln in Dakota Territory. Three years later, during a disastrous campaign against the Sioux, General Custer and five companies of the Seventh Cavalry were killed.

For the remaining fifty-two years of her life, the "girl" Custer left behind devoted herself to protecting and defending his reputation while ignoring the controversial aspects of his life. Elizabeth Custer shaped the public's memory of her dead husband through lectures, magazine articles, and books. She was lobbying Congress for a museum at the Little Bighorn battlefield when she died two days before her ninety-first birthday in 1933.

In addition to Custer's boots, the collections of the Kansas Museum of History include a dumbbell used by him at Fort Hays.

Entry: Custer's Boots

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: November 1995

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.